Washington Post Staff Writer Laura Sessions Stepp wrote yesterday about the dispute between Sharon Huff and officials at her 7-year-old son’s school in Youngsville, Louisiana.

On the whole, the article reports objective, verifiable events and statements. In addition to reporting facts about and quotes from directly-involved parties, it brings in reactions from the local community.

Its opening paragraph, though, suggests that assumptions are being made about the reader and the issues:

If you harbor any doubt how deeply troubled some Americans are by the idea of same-sex couples, especially couples with children, ask Sharon Huff. For that matter, ask her 7-year-old son, Marcus McLaurin.

Let’s deconstruct this for a moment.

The idea of same-sex couples. To those of us who are gay and/or gay-affirming, it sometimes seems that the mere concept of our existence is an issue. After all, folks like Elcio Berti, mayor of the small Brazilian city Bocaiuva do Sul, wish to ban gays from their city, and Canadian members of Parliament Larry Spencer and Reed Elley continue to support criminalization of homosexuality. Examining this objectively, though, is the bulk of American resistance targeted toward the the idea of same-sex couples and families or various degrees of recognition, integration, and affirmation of them?

Americans who are deeply troubled by gay issues. This safely describes a variety of social conservatives, self-described traditional family advocates, evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians.

Those who harbor any doubt about how troubled folks within the aforementioned group may be about gay issues. The writer appears to be assuming that a good number of her readers could be coming from this group — folks who are not intimately aware of, or question the intensity of feelings among, social conservatives.

While we can’t know her intent, the net effect of this paragraph is to imply an “us” — the gay-affirming contingent within her audience — and a “them” — Americans who resist admitting that gays exist.

The rest of the article plays out this way:

  • Paragraphs 2-7: Narrative of events at 7-year-old Marcus’ school from from his mother Sharon’s perspective
  • 8-11: Responses from school officials, all supporting the school except one school board member
  • 12-14: The dissenting school board member, local radio listeners, and a morning radio show host who support Sharon and Marcus
  • 15-18: Sharon’s brief acquiescence to the school followed by contacting the ACLU
  • 19-20: ACLU staff attorney Ken Choe
  • 21-27: Sharon & Marcus’ family history leading up to and including its impact on recent events at school
  • 28-31: Facts reported by the ACLU and on school documents about exchanges between Marcus and his teacher

Notably missing in this outline are responses from local folks who support the school or fall somewhere in between fully supporting either Sharon and Marcus or the school. Left open to the readers’ conjecture is the distinct possibility of a black and white world comprised of people like “us” (supporting Sharon and Marcus) and “them” (supporting the school) in which “they” are not offered a voice to explain their concerns or qualify their support.

We don’t have to venture far into our history to find coverage of glbt folks in which we were not offered a voice. Nothing is gained by being heard if others appear to be silenced as a result.

How could this piece have been better?

First, the writer could have recognized that her audience includes Americans — some social conservatives, ex-gays, evangelical Christians, for example — who share the concerns of the teacher and administrators at Gallet Elementary in some fashion without being merely troubled “by the idea of same-sex couples, especially couples with children.”

Second, once she elected to report on community response, she could have sought out feedback from folks with a broader range of perspectives. Do some conservative Christians or pastors in Lafayette reject the statement attributed by the teacher that “This kind of discussion [about having two moms] is not acceptable in [school]”? Do leaders of the Lafayette Urban Ministry have any thoughts about how the school’s purported handling of this issue impacts the welfare of the children and families it serves? What about the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette?

While I don’t concede that a pervasive liberal bias exists in media coverage of orientation-related issues, sometimes I wince at opportunities missed by thoughtful professional journalists. This is one of those times. The perceived slant of this piece doesn’t serve the supporters of gays or ex-gays, and (hindsight being 20/20, of course) a bit of attention to balance could have prevented it.

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